How I use creativity to deal with pain
Pain is inevitable.
Even for the most privileged, pampered person on the planet.
We’re all going to experience it. Probably a whole lot of it, for that matter.
Yet, for some reason, we don’t talk much about pain in day-to-day life. Regardless of how big a part it plays in our lives, it’s a little-discussed fact about being human.
And—maybe because we don’t talk about it—we often don’t know what to do with pain when it finally comes along.
I see people going to two extremes when it comes to dealing with pain … both of which have serious cons.
Option 1: Try to shut down pain
In many cases when pain rears its head, people try to shrug it off and ignore it.
There are many reasons to take this approach.
For one, it can seem shameful to feel pain.
We see this happen most often with people who experience pain that the people around them don’t share.
That person is made to feel weak for experiencing it in the first place.
You’ll hear people say “man up,” or “walk it off” to people whose pain they don’t understand. So people stuff their pain out of shame … maybe because they’re afraid people will think less of them.
(Aside: there are people who will whine about insignificant pain who probably need to be told to “walk it off,” but I’m talking about real pain, not the invented or exaggerated kind.)
For another, focusing on pain can seem like giving in to it.
I used to try to shut down feelings of pain (OK, let’s be honest—I still do; especially physical pain).
If I ignored pain, I figured it meant that I wasn’t letting it get the better of me.
In some cases this is true … but in other cases it just means that I was fooling myself, pulling the wool over my own eyes.
We think that we’ve dealt with pain when we ignore it and act like it isn’t happening. Unfortunately, trying to “shut down” pain sometimes just means we delay dealing with it.
Option 2: Become consumed by pain
On the other end of the spectrum, people let pain become the center of their lives.
This can happen if someone sees pain as some sort of punishment for bad behavior.
Their pain then becomes a manifestation of how bad of a person they believe they are. They become obsessed with ideas of their own wrongdoing, and become overwhelmed with regret and self-disgust. You can see how this doesn’t lead to a great place.
People also treat pain this way if they see a benefit from it.
And no, I’m not talking about drama queens who manufacture pain to get attention. I’m talking about real, awful pain. Even this can lead to benefits, albeit not typically the greatest ones. A soldier in pain gets morphine. And if he wants more morphine, he needs more pain as the currency to exchange for it. This plays out in really complex ways when the pain isn’t physical … but I won’t sidetrack us with it too much in this post.
People sometimes realize that their pain makes them special, and they let it become the epicenter of their life. They benefit from this pain (typically in the form of some kind of social perk) … at the expense of ever rising above it.
This leads to a sort of Stockholm Syndrome relationship with pain, where they begin to associate it with their very identity, and they never want to lose the pain for fear of losing themselves.
Also pretty clearly not a great outcome.
So it’s no wonder that when we see people becoming consumed by their pain, it causes a lot of us to think trying to shut it down is the best way to go.
But there’s another way.
Option 3: Process the pain
OK, OK, it sounds trite, but actually processing the pain instead of landing on one extreme or another can be an unintuitive balance to achieve.
Don’t ignore it like in that first approach; actually acknowledge it, and let yourself feel it.
But don’t treat it like it’s part of you as in that second approach. It’s not everything, and you don’t have to hold onto it forever.
Sure … but how do you actually do this?
I use creative expression to deal with pain.
There are probably a lot of ways to deal with pain in that third way.
Full disclosure: I only have one method. I’m not a pain-processing therapist—just a person going about my life who stumbled upon something that worked for me when I was about 15. But it works pretty great; I’ve used it almost every day since then.
Here’s how it works.
Step 1: Heighten your awareness of your pain.
Think about the nature of the pain you’re experiencing. Explore the thoughts that you may have been keeping at the back of your mind.
Ask yourself just what it is that you actually feel. Is it anger, loss, confusion? Why?
Don’t soften your experience of the pain by comforting yourself; that’s only going to make this part of the process more bland and less effective.
Allow yourself to imagine the worst possible implications of your pain, and think about what this pain means for the people it impacts other than you.
And think about how your life has to change because of it. No matter how much it sucks.
Don’t pull any punches. This is gonna hurt.
I probably don’t need to spell this out, but this is the most unpleasant part of the process. By now you’ll probably know whether or not this approach is for you. ;)
Step 2: Come up with a way to express it.
Let these thoughts stew as much as they need to, and brainstorm ways to turn them into a form of expression.
For me this form of expression is almost always visual art, but it doesn’t have to be for you.
For me, after I’ve explored thoughts from step 1, usually a few images have already popped into my mind. But everyone’s creative process is different, so I won’t spend too much time trying to define it here.
I will give a piece of advice though. If you’re expressing your pain, you’re probably going to come up with something ugly. Don’t censor yourself based on whether or not people will like it … otherwise you’re not processing pain at all. You’re thinking about what kind of attention you’ll get.
Narrow your idea down until you know exactly what you’re going to create. For me, by this point I know:
- Generally what my art piece subject matter is going to be (though there’s wiggle room)
- What materials I’m going to use
By now, I’m ready for the good part.
Step 3: Create that thing
This is the most cathartic piece of the process: it’s time to make the piece of art.
What’s so great about this is the feeling of mastery over your pain. You’re in the position of power, not your pain. You’ve understood the impact it stands to make on you, and you’re in a position to demonstrate that understanding.
When you express it, you’re giving your pain a place to live outside of your own head. It’s a huge release.
Depending on what your method of expression is and how appropriate this is, you can even enhance the feeling of release by sharing it with others when all is said and done. This benefits you, but who knows—it might provide that same catharsis to someone beyond you. Creative expression is cool like that.
It’s never totally over
This process isn’t magic—and depending on the nature of the pain you’re processing, you’ll still feel it when this is over. And there’s always new pain to experience.
But leveraging creative expression this way is incredibly empowering. You’re not being passive—you’re making something happen. Your pain isn’t happening to you. You’re happening to it.
It’s not strange to me that most of my best art comes out of this process. Art that’s been most moving to me seems to have come from a similar mindset as well.
Do you use creativity to process pain? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.